Review – Attempts on her Life, National Theatre

Friday 6 April 2007
  • Attempts on her Life“Holy Arts Crisis, Whingeman! The London theatre world is on the verge of war. This could mean the end of cultural consensus as we know it!”
  • “To the Whingemobile! We haven’t a moment to lose!”

Who had placed the mysterious, panicked call to the Whingephone? Who can say for sure? The transcript (all calls are recorded for training purposes) reads thus:

I need your help, Whingers. I’m worried I might have, I mean, a friend of mine might have done something very foolish indeed.

My friend has commissioned a dangerous artistic experiment and there’s been some fall-out. The audience is voting with its feet, angry mobs of citizens are braying for my my friend’s blood and a group of snipers from the Blogosphere of Playwrights is taking shots at them. The West End is on the verge of war.

Please help us, Whingers. You must settle this argument once and for all – you are the supreme arbiters of artistic merit in the capital. Please tell us – is Attempts on her Life indulgent theatrical wankery or a major event in our theatre?

Hang on a minute, I’ve got another call… Hello? You again? Who is this? Stop calling me that. It’s not nice. Is that you, de Jongh? Letts? … No, I’m not going to stick my London Critics’ Circle Award anywhere. It’s staying on my mantelpiece. Hello? Hello?

Sorry, Whingers. I’m back. Please say you’ll help. Please, please…

WhingemanNow in dangerous situations security measures dictate that only one Whinger can attend. It’s rather like the President and Vice President of the USA never travelling together on Air Force 1.

So on this occasion it was Andrew who drew the short straw and boarded the 18:56 Whingemobile to Waterloo, pausing only briefly outside the NT to brief Swedish artist Åke whose services he had called on as interpreter should artistic matters go over his head.

With Åke brought up to speed on the story so far, it was in to the Littleton’s circle via what should be a mandatory stop at the Gents to minimise the risk of embarrassment – Attempts on her Life is 1hr 50 mins without an interval.

Now, full disclosure: The West End Whingers generally know their intellectual limitations and artistic boundaries . In other words, we know what we like (so much so, in fact, that we have taken to writing our reviews before seeing the play) and we had taken an instant dislike to Attempt on her Life after reading the marketing blurb in the NT’s brochure:

Attempts to describe her?
Attempts to destroy her?
Or attempts to destroy herself?
Is Anne the object of violence?
Or its terrifying practitioner?

Shocking and hilarious by turn, Martin Crimp’s play is a rollercoaster of late 20th-century obsessions. From pornography and ethnic violence, to terrorism and unprotected sex, its strange array of nameless characters attempt to invent the perfect story to encapsulate our time.

It had the distinction, in fact, of being the only thing the brochure we didn’t book tickets for. We knew that it punched well above our intellectual weight. What we hadn’t foreseen was that the punching would result in general jibes and fisticuffs all round (see Further Reading below for the whole sorry story); if we had, we would have been there for the first night.

So, without further ado (at last! – Phil), here is the official verdict on the case:

  • It starts unpromisingly
  • Within 10 minutes it transforms into utterly brilliant
  • It stays utterly brilliant right until the very end
  • End of debate

Should we add some intellectual weight to that? OK. Hope you can keep up with it:

  • There are really only two cardinal sins in the theatre: being boring and being humourless
  • It is never boring.
  • Some of it is actually very funny (particularly the Late Review with Germaine Greer pastiche, the “Annie” car advert and the police interrogation).

With us so far? OK. Here are some more thoughts:

  • When the actors aren’t playing a part, they are filming the action with video cameras or managing the set-ups, the resulting video being projected onto a giant screen or in some cases a triptych of screens. It sounds a bit “so what” but the images they create are astonishing and mesmerising by turns. The work you find yourself putting into comparing the stage version with the video output is thrilling, absorbing and exhausting in a very satisfying way.
  • The cast are all superb (how often can you say that?)
  • Yet again, we find that our ignorance put us at a great advantage over more informed theatregoers. Having seen neither the original 1997 Royal Court production of Martin Crimp‘s play nor anything at all by director Katie Mitchell (who recently did The Waves at the National), we were able to enjoy the experience without any baggage.
  • It contains one of Andrew’s favourite songs ever – Sway (was it the Julie London version?)
  • It is too long, but then most plays are.

Top tips for enjoying it

  • Sit in the front of the circle; that seems to be the best place. Whatever you do, don’t sit in the front stalls.
  • Go to the toilet beforehand. The decision to perform all 110 minutes without an interval might seem a bit daunting, but it’s entirely for the best; to have interrupted the show would have been to break the spell and the momentum.
  • Don’t think about it; don’t try and understand it (although it’s not abstruse); don’t judge it. Just sit there and let it pull you in.


The Whingers have handed down this verdict:

“It is the considered opinion of the West End Whingers that Attempts on her Life is not pretentious or indulgent or wankery. It is actually a mesmerising theatrical experience of outstanding agility and imagination and we never thought we would use words like that.”

And our anonymous caller can quote us on that.

We hope that this settles the argument once and for all and that the theatrical social media world can now return to its status quo – happily devoid of debate.

Further Reading


2 Responses to “Review – Attempts on her Life, National Theatre”

  1. […] make the effort to see these people. I went to see Attempts on Her Life on the strength of this review. And that production would make my list of ‘Productions which changed the way I see […]

  2. […] something I’d read on a blog back in April 2007 (when I didn’t even live in London) because of this. It’s laughable that it’s 2010 and many of our major arts institutions haven’t realised that […]

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